Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Villains for Your Stories 5 - Dare to have a bad guy

Nobody wants to be the bad guy. That includes the writer. This may be why I see fewer of what I’d call old-time villains, who wreak havoc in stories without becoming monsters, in contemporary films and books.

Historically, a lot of antagonists have been members of out groups. When I was a kid, anyone other than a straight WASP — including American Indians, Asians, Blacks, Italians, Gays, Nazis and Irish — made an acceptable villain. You can find all of them in noir films, TV westerns, and cartoons. Today, if you look at that list, only Nazis are still fair game, and it's safe to say that terrorists of any sort can show up in a story and be booed with impunity. Mostly.

One trick writers have used to hang onto some former go-to villains is to have someone of the same ethnicity on the side of the good guys. (See folks, we aren’t bigots. Look, we know some of “those people” are good.)

The legacy of bigotry is enough, in and of itself, to make a writer reluctant to create a villain.

At the other end of the spectrum is the explained villain. A writer, who doesn’t really believe it him/herself, cooks up a cliche Freudian reason for the bad behavior. It’s a segmented sort of insanity. Yes, the writer has an excuse and can point to it, but that does not make the story less disappointing. It's easy to see why writers avoid this path.

An approach to this problem that’s in between is the antihero. Sometimes these are characters who do the right thing because is serves their own selfish interests (or more likely because they have a selfish excuse for doing the right thing, and so don’t see themselves as being “suckers”). Han Solo more or less fits this type and ends up being a hero, despite himself. But I think it’s notable that Han is flanked by a traditional hero, Luke, and an old-time villain, Darth Vader.

I guess it could be said that the Godfather’s Michael Corleone is an antihero. He’s certainly the story’s protagonist. I see him as a tragic figure who is corrupted by circumstances — mainly a society that is even more broken and flawed than his criminal family.

Science fiction and fantasy helped social critics (and their ideas) make it through the McCarthy era safely. And, as long as the pixies and aliens don’t look too much like contemporary groups, these genres can provide rich and safe opportunities for villains. The problem comes in when the worlds these creatures live in are too distant from our own or the nature moves so far from human that it becomes easier to think of these villains as monsters than reflections of ourselves.

To me, the answer to restoring villainy is bringing authenticity to the work. I’ve tried to present some of the approaches to this, such as reflecting the hero or just going to extremes when faced with an intolerable loss or insult, in previous posts. That provides a “how,” but writers still need to have the courage to present villains that will be unacceptable portrayals to some readers or audience members no matter what. As soon as an antagonist is fleshed out enough for people to identify with, the negative aspects will be taken personally.

Good villains get under people’s skin. Writers who present good villains will be attacked.

Which brings us to the “why.” Why create characters that irritate people when you can always soften them or make them into monsters? The answer is villains are necessary if you want to make the most of many story concepts.

All you need to do to prove this to yourself is to list ten of your favorite villains. In fact, you probably can make the case just by listing ten to twenty of your favorite stories. The best argument for daring to make really bad villains is right in front of you — in the movies you’ve watched and the books you've read, over and over again.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Villains for Your Stories 4 - Rousing the beast

I watched a Dragnet episode from the 50s recently, and it starred Lee Marvin as the villain. He was, by far, the most interesting character I ever saw on the show -- part of regular viewing with my dad in it's 60s incarnation.

Marvin took standard Dragnet comments and presented them in fresh ways. He somehow drew Detective Friday into a fist fight (though it was somewhat unconvincing). Also, he was on the screen though almost all the show. That and the culprit's earning a trip to the gas chamber stand out as unique in all my Dragnet viewing. 

The character was a serial killer who was more angry about how society pumped up murder as something special than he was upset in any way by his victims. He barely cared about money he gained. He wasn't especially angry with them or envious. He didn't seem to be thrilled by the process of murder. And he didn't kill to get even or find justice.

I am not a fan of villains as forces of nature without motivation, but I was fascinated by this story, which played out in less than 20 minutes. Was this character just a killing machine with no human dimensions?

The episode contained some of the obligatory psychiatric tropes of the time -- a dream of victims and a report of dissociative behavior-- but I think the answer was away from the main plot. Instead of looking at the police working to put the story of a murder together and get their suspect to confess, the payoff was in murderer's interest in food. 

He was always hungry and particular about what he ate. He even agreed to provide information on where a body was buried once they took him to a favorite, vegetarian restaurant. And he kept his promise, but much of the scene, which revealed a lot about the scope of his murders, was focused on appreciation of the food.

Here's the thing: he was as much wrapped up with sharing his eating experience and appreciation of the bread, the beets, etc., as he was with the murders and his disappointment that people got all that wrong. He could not connect with the importance others put on murder, but he was desperate to connect in a way he thought might work -- a good meal.

Trying to connect on that level with Friday and his partner -- on whom the trip to such an exotic and wonderful restaurant was wasted (both got cheese sandwiches) -- brought tragedy. The serial killer was truly isolated and alone, and he always would be.

Apocryphal story: Marvin was asked how he created such brilliant villains. His answer was that he never played a villain.

It is valuable to look to see how a story is catalyzed, what puts things in motion. For protagonists, that's all about finding the inciting incident (which can occur before the novel or movie begins, but often is in the first act). But it's valuable to see what puts villains in motion, too. What happened that made the antagonist behave in an antisocial way and, in particular, oppose the protagonist?

In the Dragnet episode, I have to presume the villain was so lonely he looked for connection through murder. This is subtle and difficult to portray unless you have a Lee Marvin at hand. But there are more accessible and more easily portrayed catalysts for villainous action.

Betrayal can set off an antagonist. Being turned into the police, left for dead, or not defended by a friend when insulted, slandered, or abused -- any of these can make a villain focus on revenge against an individual or that person's friends and relatives (no matter how innocent). Having a target be a sympathetic hero is usually enough, but, as I stated in the second post in this series, it's valuable to have the reaction by the villain be disproportionate. Make "making things right" go out of control.

Putting a scare into a character can turn one into a villain. None of us wants to lose what we value. A threat to power, in particular, can lead to bad behavior. History is littered with kings who executed (or had executed) potential claimants to the throne, including innocent children. But the cause can be as simple as having someone the villain imagines loves him or her show interest in the protagonist. Since the hero's success could draw away a loved one, the antagonist must take all steps necessary to make the hero fail.

Similarly, when a character will only feel complete if the treasure or person he or she wants in attained, the person who has it may be dehumanized and marked for destruction. The same thing is true if knowledge is a problem and the villain needs to hide his or her guilt. There's a Bible story that has both of these. Once King David got Uriah's wife pregnant, the soldier was marked by the King, which ultimately led to his death.

The prospect of defeat, especially when the villain sees his or her vulnerability, can push the character into unfair behavior, often expressed as "evening the odds" in a competition. I love it when the villain is the only one who sees and understands the great talent the hero has. A scene where the hero innocently reveals the talent and doesn't even realize he or she has done so -- and thus creates a formidable enemy -- can be a highlight in a story. And the superior position of the reader or audience can make that scene irresistible.

One more thing to explore -- the context of rousing the beast. If you create such a scene consider the following:
  • How to make sure what happens is important to the villain and the readers/audience knows this.
  • Not having the villain reveal him or herself. I like it when the antagonist does not appear to be powerful (like Uriah Heep in David Copperfield).
  • If possible, use emotional triggers that have been established in the story or that are universal.
  • Create more impact by setting it up with mood (comic relief can precede a catalytic event and double it's emotional effect) or setting (a betrayal on the antagonist's home grounds, say the family dinner table, or in a place with imagery, like a church).
Yes, there are plenty of villains who need no catalyst. They are "compelled" or their reason is "a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do." But it's worth exploring the opportunity to find more.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Villains for Your Stories 3 - Who's bad?

I favor villains of some complexity. Creating a monster is much too easy. And less engaging for a story.

I was binge-watching a TV series, and a villain showed up with lots of power, a clear flaw (greed),  a philosophy that hinted at a sophisticated worldview, and evil henchmen. He also seemed to be pretty smart. Though he did not show up again in the episode after his introduction, I knew I had not seen the last of him. And I had hope.

Sure enough, he popped up a few episodes later in the season.

Great! Get the popcorn.

But all he turned out to be was a hero-torturing monster. Sigh. (Even worse, his evil henchmen were inept, and their security measures failed completely.)

The villain escaped. I don't care to see him again. And that is the problem with monsters in general and unimpressive ones in particular.

So... the first rule on a villain. Make him, her, or it (but not them) a worthy adversary. Even actual non-human monsters, can reach that level if there is real doubt about the hero's victory. This means providing a demonstration of huge physical power (King Kong), unpredictability (The Thing), a special talent/skill/power (almost any comic villain). Show a tough opponent being beaten.

Now, to go beyond this kind of a monster with humans, I think intelligence is necessary. It is too simple for a reader or an audience member to imagine a fool being beaten. This does not mean the villain can't hide his/her capabilities. Uriah Heep is all the more loathsome because he pretends to be humble and subservient. And it's always fun to have a master villain pretending to be a minion, putting his/her second out front as a shield or bait. Surprises are always welcome.

People are always looking for how the hero might triumph, and it is harder to triumph over a smart villain so don't loose tension by making the bad guy/gal a fool.

As I've written before, Damon Knight advised having a ratio of about 70/30 good to bad for protagonists and the opposite ratio for villains. I'll take that further on villains. It is pure gold to have a villain people can really hate. But the gold gets transformed into platinum when there is a piece of them readers or audience members love and connect with.

As with heroes, talent, humor, and having been wronged can help us to connect with a villain. I think there is also value to exposing doubt in a villain. Or compassion for their foes. Or past good done. Or one wrong turn that set them on an evil course. When I see myself in a villain, when I think, "There but for the grace of God go I," the appeal jumps. Darth Vader, not Godzilla.

Story-wise, making elements of the villain reflect elements of the hero enriches their conflict. It shows the duality of powerful human traits. And, if the hero sees him/herself in the villain, that brings everything up another notch. Then we have the character we are identifying with wondering about what's right and wrong, what's good or bad. And it's personal, leading to a necessary look inside and a reevaluation.

One more thought -- this on the "wrong" turn. Certainly, a promising character can become a villain because of a trauma. Have the most talented kid in the community first witness the deaths of family members and then be kidnapped, abused, a brought up in a crude and ruthless community, and you have a super villain. Loss, deprivation, isolation, and injustice to a vulnerable individual can turn out badly. Good, but perhaps too simple.

I think exploring corruption provides more of a payoff. There are amplifiers that reveal character. Think of celebrities and powerful people who have been caught taking a vice to its limits. Think especially of those who have touched our hearts or braved adversity or made us laugh or gained a victory at great personal sacrifice for human rights -- and then shocked and disappointed us. In almost every case they have been corrupted by amplifiers. Wealth. Power. Fame. Honors. The social gifts that delay, diminish, or destroy accountability.

Lead us not into temptation. Perhaps it means don't put me into a position that amplifies my weaknesses by making me unaccountable. Don't give me gifts that corrupt my character.

But, as a writer and a creator of villains (and, to an extent heroes), it may be your job to corrupt promising and outstanding characters. It seems evil, but, with villains such as these, you can develop exquisite human moments within you story. 

Next time, I'll continue this exploration of villains with motivation, how to rouse them to extreme action.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Writer’s Productivity Quiz - Good habits, bad habits

Okay, I’ve been wanting to do this for a while. Here’s an unscientific quiz aimed at helping writers identify what habits they might build or break to become more productive. This is based on my providing guidance for about 1,000 writers over the past few years and many more conversations over the past few decades. Many of the answers represent what I’ve heard from authors at all levels of success.

What's the best way to use this quiz? Pay attention to a) your insights and b) what makes you feel uncomfortable. The total score is less important.

1) How often do you write?

A. Almost every day, at least 30 minutes.

B. Five days a week, at least 15 minutes.

C. When I'm inspired or irregularly.

D. I haven't put time in on a serious work in progress in a year or more.
2) I edit as I go.

A. Never.

B. Only the last scene, then I work forward.

C. I get a scene/chapter "right" before I move on.

D. I just can’t leave what’s written alone. I may go back to the early chapters over and over again before I complete a draft.

3) Here’s what counts as my “writing time” …

A. Composing and editing done on my work in progress.

B. Marketing and working on my author website or relevant social media in addition to my composing an entity.

C. Any time my fingers touch the keyboard.

D. I don't keep track of my writing time in any way.

4) In my time dedicated to editing…

A. I make separate passes, from macro to micro, that is, big story issues to the minutia of spelling and grammar.

B. I check the story against my outline or treatment, then I do a pass with automatic checks for style, grammar, and spelling so I can stand to look at it. Then a couple more passes to make it consistent, smooth, and polished.

C. I try to catch everything at once, so there is a second pass and a polish before it goes to market.

D. I fix things that bother me

5) In preparing to write…

A. I have everything set up and ready before my scheduled session begins, including having a good idea of what I'll be writing or which editing task I intend to complete.

B. I’ve got my coffee and my tools (paper and pencil, laptop, etc.), but, if I'm composing I always read the last scene I've written — depending on that to launch me into the draft — rather than have a definite plan.

C. I have a place, my tools, the time, and I know which manuscript I’ll be working on.

D. There’s no planning or setting up. I dip in and out  of the manuscript when the mood suits me for as long as I stay interested.

6) When I work, I usually…

A. Move through my writing at a steady clip, rather than pausing for long periods or indulging in distractions.

B. Will take a deep breath or briefly pace if the words stop, but I'll skip ahead or use some other strategy if the pause gets too long.

C. Allow my mind to wander, may work on another project, or may do research if the words stop flowing.

D. Wait for inspiration.

7) When I lack a word or a fact or don't remember an incident from my story…

A. I keep going, using brackets and place holding words (like bagel), making sure that I fix these within 24 hours.

B. I stop, find the answer, then resume I writing.

C. I stop to find answers, but frequently don't get back to the writing because of distractions.

D. This doesn't affect me much because most the time I'm busy building my ideas folder.

8) To keep the act of writing from hurting my health, I…

A. Schedule in times to stretch and hydrate no less than once an hour, and I take advantage of technologies like standing desks and dictation software.

B. Listen to my body and take it easy on myself when I start to feel stress, aching joints, or sore muscles.

C. Limit myself to a definite number of shots of whiskey per session.

D. Get medical help, e.g, physical therapy or detoxing, once I complete a project.

9) To help me improve my approach, explore new techniques, keep focused, and understand how I work I…

A. Track my participation through things like word count, time spent, and scenes edited, and also maintain a process journal.

B. Collect articles and give myself a word count goal.

C. Use writing techniques that feel right at the time.

D. Trust the force.

This quiz is not exhaustive, and the score doesn’t matter as much as what may be revealed by taking the test, but here goes…

Give yourself 4 points for each A, 3 for each B, 2 for each C and 1 for each D.

If your total score is 28-36, you are a productive writer with great discipline and habits.

If you ended up with 19-27, you are working at the level of many professionals and probably have good enough work habits to achieve many of your goals.

For those with 9-18, you have demonstrated dedication to the craft. If your productivity pleases you, you may not want to make any changes. If not, you may wish to explore opportunities to add good habits and break some bad ones.

Lower scores may just mean you have your own way of doing things that works for you. No problem there. But if you are frustrated with your productivity and the score confirms that for you, it might be good to dedicate some time to understand what’s getting in your way and make some changes.

Whatever score you got, I hope you had some fun. As always, I welcome questions and comments.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Villains for Your Stories 2 - Motivations

When you have a monster as the villain in your story, motivation is unnecessary. The beast can be considered a force of nature, a killing machine. Similarly, a lot of the human monsters, like serial killers, don't need a motivation. They are different from the rest of us, and we can watch their violence with complete belief. As with hurricanes and death-dealing meteorites, we may feel fear, desperation, and anxiety, but we won't feel any empathy.

As I've been digging into villains, many of them do inspire empathy — to the point of becoming tragic heroes, like the original King Kong. Watching one of the first Have Gun - Will Travel episodes, it occurred to me I still worried about the villain, Manfred Holt, long after the story was finished.

Here was a gunslinger who had killed eight men, but he escaped cleverly, cared about his wife and child, was articulate, saved the hero from certain death when he could've gotten away, and held to his own code. He never shot an unarmed man.

The problem was, the slightest offense would lead him to violence, and he gave no consideration for men whose skills with a gun were far below his own. When asked why he didn't just scale his outrage to a fistfight, he said he wasn't very good at fighting that way. Even so, might have escaped the consequences of his actions if he'd been willing to promise he wouldn't hunt down and kill a man who had been a witness against him. He couldn't do that. It would be a lie.

So, even with the kind of villain that is usually reduced to a cartoon, complexity can be worked in, resulting in a memorable character. (Of course, it didn't hurt that Manfred was played by Charles Bronson.)

So, one motivation that can work for a villain is a distorted and inflexible sense of honor.

Another motivation that can create a memorable villain is the need for completion of some sort. This may be tied to a humiliation or a vendetta or an ancient wound. The idea that a group of people must pay for a historical wrong (mistreatment of family members, taking of land, or impoverishment) can drive a villain to what they see as vigilante justice. This can resonate with views of wars between people and provide insights about the human drive for revenge.

Now, the hero might have this kind of motivation, too, but villains usually add a distorting ripple by either making it a grudge that reaches too far into the past or by delivering punishment to an innocent person or meting out punishment that is disproportional.

Trickier is a villain motivated seek to still the voices in his/her head. It needs to be tied to a trauma with which the audience can identify, and often must be presented to them with some immediacy. Again, it must be clear that the victims are innocent or the attacks are out of proportion to the suffering. Getting the balance on the latter right can be very difficult.

The villain may be acting out of loneliness or the need to love. Consider a woman who has been widowed, left without the love of her life. For her to become a stalker, perhaps based on misinterpreting a kindness, could create a distinct and engaging villain.

When the villain is taking on an organization or society so as to be heard, particularly after having made reasonable attempts, people are likely to have empathy, especially if they have had similar experience of exclusion and dismissal. But the direction of the evil acts must be toward representatives who don't deserve the punishment.

Of course, the old standby of any of the seven deadly sins (especially greed) out of control in an otherwise charming person can make for a strong villain. But work is necessary if you want a villain as compelling as Manfred. If a villain goes after a rich person for a small portion of their wealth so that he/she can pay for a child's operation, the balance might shift toward the villain. But explore and test until you find the place near middle point where readers can almost can see the villain's side.

Likability can help gain empathy. Talent and humor can make any character more likable. Even someone as horrible as Hannibal Lector.

Once a good motivation is thought through, it must be presented with human moments. This is often done in good films where just the look on the villain's face tells you that he or she is feeling for the opponent or reconsidering the action or briefly overwhelmed by regret. In novels, too often the writers try and build the case with back story or dialogue alone. Creating a reader experience that is in the moment and based on a gesture that exposes the inner life of the villain is a better way to do the job.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Villains for Your Stories 1 - Getting under your skin

Villains have become a problem… For writers. I realized this as I was binging my way through old TV series. On some of the oldest shows, like Have Gun, Will Travel and Route 66, the bad guys really got under my skin in a way the antagonists in more recent programs never did. For some good reasons — like the rejection of offensive stereotypes – and some bad reasons – like a hesitancy to present truly bad behavior as as morally bad rather than morally ambiguous — I think some writers pull their punches when they create villains.

There's plenty of room for antiheroes. They been as successful part of literature at least since Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. But it might be time to revive some good old-fashioned villains that we can boo.

By that I don't mean creating melodramatic, all-bad characters. We do do too much of that already with monsters, aliens, and historical villains like Nazis. So giving the bad guys positive trains is fine. Similarly, it's okay – I would say essential – to have heroes who are flawed in important ways. But what's the value of a hero's flaw if the villain doesn't take advantage of it?

So here's a recommendation: create villains who will not hesitate to push against and use the greatest weaknesses or failures of character that a protagonist has. Not only does this create powerful conflict, with which readers can identify, but it makes the character arc, where the protagonist undergoes substantial and believable change, possible.

I mentioned that these villains got under my skin. I think I know why. During the stories, they caused real harm. The harm was (mostly) undeserved and certainly out of proportion. And the damage they did continued to get worse over time. As with an action film, where escalation is a requirement for audience engagement, making a bad guy do worse and worse things as the story progresses can bring out the instinct in readers or viewers to protect. Here I was, in the case of Have Gun, Will Travel, unable to stay in my chair for most of the shows because I felt such an urgency to stop the bad guy. And this response not was accomplished in a two hour movie. It was achieved in just 25 minutes. I have to tip my hat to writers who were able to do that week after week (39 episodes in season one!).

In many of the stories, there were people who could not defend themselves. They really had almost no chance. That helped to underline a very important aspect of some of the best villains. They have power. They demonstrate that power repeatedly during the story. And they create real doubt about whether the protagonist can succeed against them. In fact, in most of the stories that worked well, the hero suffered an important defeat. (This wasn't always done well. One 1950s series I watched repeatedly had the hero ambushed, clunked on the head, and tied up. I really came to wonder why he was such a dope that he didn't know enough to be vigilant as he walked down dark streets or rode his horse into canyons.)

So, an aptitude for finding exploiting flaws, an escalation of actions that cause harm, and the exercise of power all seem to be important to building these engaging villains. It's probable that many of your favorite antagonists (Darth Vader? Gordon Gecko? Hannibal Lector?) illustrate these points. But building a villain also means creating compelling reasons for their evil behaviors. What are their motivations?

We'll get into that next time as I continue this series on bad guys. In the meantime you might want to check out some of the posts I've done in the past that looked at villains.
Villains and the status quo
Crazy, bad villains
Disturb me

Why am I doing this? I'm deeply involved) creating a series of short dramas, under 30 minutes each, so I'm working to understand compressed storytelling and the roles of all the characters, including the villains, and how the best writers make these tales compelling.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The Secrets of Fiction 3 - How to turn the story

Oedipus was competent, confident, and clever. He outwitted the Sphinx and knew he had managed to dodge fate (which said he would murder his father and bed his mother). But there were a few things he didn’t know. Like he was adopted. As the truth is revealed, he is tragically brought down. Such is the power of secrets.

Ishmael does one thing against his better judgment when he boards the Pequod. He doesn’t insist on getting a chance to size up the whaling ship’s captain. In fact, he doesn’t see Ahab’s face until the vessel is out to sea and it is too late to change his plans. And, other than the rants of a pesky oracle, it’s all a surprise to him.

Almost any romantic comedy you can think up turns on a secret that must be revealed before true love can find a way.

Okay. As you may have guessed, I’ve turned back to secrets after leaving them alone for a few years. Why? Because I’ve been reviewing some of my works to see how I can tune them up, and, over and over again, I’ve found hidden knowledge of what sort or another can add power.

But not every secret makes a story better. To really do the job a secret:
  • Must be significant in and of itself. If it doesn’t mean something to the reader and the characters, it can’t do its magic.
  • Must not be obvious, if readers don’t know. No one likes to guess the killer three chapters before the end of a mystery.
  • Must suggest real consequences, if readers do know. They should worry about what will happen when the truth comes out.
  • Must recast or explain what has gone before. Whether they clarify a motive or change the meaning of a comment or turn the whole story, they need to reach into the past and create new meaning and/or  bring the theme to life.
  • Must suggest “if only” scenarios. Readers should be able to imagine changes along the way that might have effected the final outcome. This is especially true with bittersweet or tragic endings.
  • Must be kept for an important reason. The reason can be wrong and may be tied to a misunderstanding, but the person keeping a secret must be strongly motivated and forced to extremes to protect the secret.
In addition, the keeping of secrets impacts relationships (and often how characters see themselves). As secrets are held, the have a corrosive effect, creating doubt and distrust.

Under the best of circumstances, it is the secret the transforms the story, creating resets on the lives of the characters and dramatically changing their fortunes.

One of the best ways to understand and appreciate secrets is to think of favorite stories with endings that you love. Chances are that most of these have surprises that matter in the last act (if not the last scene). Do any of these reflect what’s in my list of Musts? Do they illustrate the impact of secrets on relationships?

Want to use the power of secrets in you own story? Try this. Think of five secrets that your protagonist might go to extremes to keep. Think of five secrets that might put power into the antagonists hands. Think of the most important assumptions in your story and what would happen if any of them were turned on its head.

If any of these make your story better, you now have a secret to better writing.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

A Writer's To Be Read Pile - Novels and nonfiction

I don't know how you can be a writer without being a reader. Some people try it, and perhaps some are successful. But most accomplished writers that I know seem to swallow libraries whole and to have To Be Read stacks that reach to the ceiling.

As I mentioned in my last blog post, reading should be on your priority list. Stephen King says so. This time, I'll look at reading in more detail.

To begin with, let's acknowledge that books should lead the way. If you are writing books or even scripts of any length, most of your answers to your most difficult problems have been worked out by other authors. While you might find good prose in magazines and newspapers (along with a lot of appalling uses of words), books are the only place you'll find big answers. Like what?
  • How to maintain reader interest over hundreds of pages. 
  • How to create a satisfying character arc. 
  • How to interweave plots and subplots. 
  • How to eke out loads of information in powerful and engaging ways.
Novels provide models on how to immerse readers for hours and hours. They create characters whose heads you can get into and whose lives become part of your own. They create worlds like Middle Earth and revive societies like Tudor England that encourage people to enter and reenter.

You might be wondering what the differences between works of fiction (most of what I've covered so far) and absorbing films, like the Star Wars series, and television shows, like Breaking Bad. Films and television, especially for those who delve into the scripts on which they are based, have a lot to offer the writer. Storytelling and characterization both come alive in these media. However, viewers are different from readers, and the experiences and lessons of film and television are usually incomplete and obscured because so much of the final work of art depends upon others (actors, directors, designers, composers, sound engineers, cinematographers, etc.).

So, have near the top of your To Be Read pile novels. Make them an important part of your diet. Personally, I always have at least one novel in progress. And I tend to alternate between classic works (usually from the 19th century) and contemporary works. I make a point of throwing in wildcard novels from time to time so I see what's happening in other genres.

Poetry has made its way back into my life. Primarily, I listen to readings. I have the great pleasure of hearing a number of poets read their work at Bread Loaf last summer, but YouTube and The Sonnet Project provide excellent sources for a regular (and painless) infusion. You might set yourself a target of, say, listening to one of Shakespeare's sonnets each day at lunch time. (When I actually put a book of poetry into my hands, I read it the first time to myself, and then make sure I read it out loud.)

Nonfiction reading is standard for research, but I'm a big believer in having much of it be driven by curiosity. Scientific ideas, including social sciences, can give you more to say when you're writing. Histories — especially when you read contrasting views about the same incidents or historical periods — provide perspectives on how the world ask, the role of chance, and the consequences of bad decisions.

The best biographies revealed how people work and can extend your view of how extreme their choices can be. They provide some of the best ways to understand gut level how complex humans are.

I could go on for a long time, but let me close by endorsing writing books. I've already mentioned Stephen King's On Writing. Robert McKee's Story should be on your shelf. Jack Bickham provided some of the best help on nuts and bolts. And I like almost any writing book that focuses on interviews with working writers. The current favorite of mine is The TV Showrunner's Roadmap.

That's it. I'd love to hear what you feel belongs on a serious writers to be read pile. Ultimately, what reread shapes us. As humans as well as writers. So keep reading a priority and never stop challenging yourself with typical works.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

A Writer's Perfect Day - Scheduling your tasks

Imagine your calendar is clear and you can spend whatever time you wish working as a writer. Create a list of activities. It probably will include some time for drafting new pages, adding to your story. If you're like me, and you have a lot of projects that need attention, you might also spend time on revision. I also regularly get involved excavating through files of notes, ideas, titles, and unfinished manuscripts – often uncovering some surprises. Research might be added. Connections with other people might be added.

Stephen King pointedly reminds writers that they need to be readers, so that probably gets on this list, too. And I think that no matter where you are in your writing career it's important to keep yourself fresh with education, exercises, and conferences.

Certainly, some time would need to be dedicated to career planning, exploring opportunities, pitching, and marketing. Reasonably, it's good to schedule some "oops" time because things don't always go as planned. For me, plotting and outlining tends to be a separate, dedicated activity, which could come before drafting or after I've spewed out the first draft.

This has become quite a long list of activities, and I invite you to consider how you would prioritize these items and what time you would dedicate toward each. You also may have some items you care about that I missed here. Go ahead and add them. Or you might want to slice up my items, such as revision, into smaller pieces like story development, scene analysis, and ferreting out typos.

When you have a your list done, you'll probably see more than can be done in one day. You may wish to look at a full month and see how a perfect month might play out for you with these activities assigned to different times and days. My recommendation would be that you put together a perfect day, just for fun. Then put together a perfect week, which would be good to take more seriously.

So now you've taken a blank week and populated it with the jobs you need to do as a writer. Feel free to fill up every available hour or to stick to the bare minimum — 15 minutes of drafting per day, five days a week (based on my experience with people I've mentored). I hope you feel pretty good about it. I hope it makes time for the efforts you've prioritized and chosen. (You can check out more about making good decisions on where to put your efforts in the writer's decisions series I just completed.)

I hope it looks to you like the kind of schedule that would make all your dreams as a writer possible.

I suspect, that as good as this may look, you still have a problem with the schedule – the rest of your life. Many things intrude -- day jobs, family, household work, health, and more. Presuming you done a good job as far as your fantasy schedule, now you have time to put together a week (or day) with achievable tasks. So the next step is to go back to a blank week and populated with commitments that can't be avoided. Usually this begins with boxing out time for work or school. If you have regular medical appointments, you probably can't trade them off. So make sure all the absolutely untouchable things (church on Sunday for me) are marked down in indelible ink.

Other tasks may offer more flexibility. You want to take advantage of that so you can shift things around to take advantage of your golden hours. For me that means drafting in the morning and revising the early afternoon. So you might want to shift the time or day for that phone call with your daughter or trade-off the days on which your responsible for dinner.

Your week is beginning to fill up. In all likelihood, you feel a level of frustration because this calendar leaves out activities on your ideal calendar or doesn't provide enough time for work you care about.

The good news is that you probably do see more opportunities for writing related work than you imagined. How do you get more time? Having things scheduled and working more efficiently will immediately provide more productive time, so you've already taken an important step. You may also see that there are big open areas that normally capture web surfing, television, and sleep. To an extent, these may be negotiable. How much are you willing to sacrifice for your writing career?

Also, looking at your original list of tasks and those that didn't make it into the one-week schedule, consider putting some of these jobs into slots that might become available once a month or even once a quarter. Just get them onto the calendar somewhere if you can.

I have two other suggestions regarding perfect days and perfect weeks. First, always have a list of tasks that can be done in 15 minutes or less. If you make sure you're prepared to jump right into them, these can be disposed of during what I call interstitial times. If a phone call and early or your waiting for water to boil order appointment gets canceled, that creates openings to get these done and off your lists.

Second, don't schedule every moment. Leave lots of extra time for projects that go over, illness, emergencies, unexpected visits, and all those things that surprise us on a regular basis. Acknowledge that life cannot be completely controlled and make allowances for that.

I'll repeat one thing – make time at least five days a week for drafting new work. This is the essence of what being a writer is. Sacrifice all the other writer-related work before you skip this. A writer writes.

I begin an online version of my How to Write Fast course next week. To tee it up, here's an article on the Five Reasons to Fast Draft.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Decision Making for Writers 4 - The Use and Misuse of Deadlines

Thanks to years of training, most writers have two powerful tools at their disposal for achieving the goals they commit to — clocks and calendars. Typically, they have had to schedule work, show up on time, and meet deadlines from an early age.

Of course, I know many writers whose raison d’etre seems to be to be to miss deadlines. They make procrastination an art. Douglas Adams famously said, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”

Bad deadlines

If you tend to ignore and consistently miss deadlines, they are NOT helping you to become a more productive writer. In fact, the more you abuse them, the more you build bad habits and put your mental health at risk. Instead of deadlines, you probably would be better off creating rewards for yourself. That way, you can finish any time you want, but you won’t get that cup of coffee until your page is full of words. Two cautions:

  • First, be careful of using vices as rewards. Many a writer has promised him or herself a shot of whiskey once a goal was accomplished. Not a good idea.
  • Second, don’t try this with real deadlines, such as turning in a book to an editor. Failing to meet contractual obligations will not help your career. And be careful to understand what the deadline really means. 
Once I was working on a book where I was required to turn in a chapter a week. This became a problem when each chapter came back with edits (over and over again). I never got to create a proper beginning, and, by the sixth week, I was hopelessly mired in rewrites for each of the previous chapters — with the editor gleefully filling my calendar with more deadlines. (The next book I did was written only on the condition that they would not see one page until the due date for the draft. That worked out fine.)

Good deadlines

These are the ones you accept that are reasonable and clear. For contracts, this means getting everything set up correctly before you sign (as happened with the second book above). For your personal deadlines, it means writing out your promise to yourself. Two tips:
  1. Keep a record of you time spent in writing activities. If you do, over the years, you’ll have a good basis for estimating the time to draft a page, proofread a chapter, write a synopsis, etc.
  2. When you make your estimates for time devoted to a given task or project, add 50%. I draft about 5-7 pages an hour, so, for a 70,000 word book, experience tells me I should complete the first draft in about 60 hours. My estimate for creating a deadline would be 90 hours.
Deadlines can get tricky in cases where you are collaborating. Making sure there is good communication on roles, responsibilities, decisions, and version control is essential. Then, because creative people tend to have more success if they are good team players, set deadlines that are easy so no one feels let down.

Realistically, good deadlines on collaborative work or projects for clients or publishers are not always possible. Opportunities may have due dates (say for a Christmas story) that may not be moveable or that were set before you got involved. In these cases, it is good to have a plan B (with the ability to hand off other projects or household chores). It’s also wise to mentally move the deadline to an earlier date.

In-between deadlines

What I call in-between deadlines are those that may or may not help with your productivity. Contests, new anthologies, and bluebirds (opportunities that come out of nowhere) often fit this definition. For instance, I belong to a script writing group. Many of us use the annual contests, with deadlines generally coming up in May, to mark the endpoint for finishing a work (film or TV script, usually). That seems to work symbiotically with goals aimed at regularly creating marketable works, and it also can create a sense of everyone working together toward common goals, even though these are not collaborations.

On the other hand, contests and pitch opportunities for novels and short stories seem to come up every week or so. Some writers dart from one to another, starting and stopping work, drifting away from their designated Work in Progress, and generally destroying momentum for their projects.

What about intrusive deadlines you don't seek? It is hard and possibly unwise to turn away from an agent’s email asking for a manuscript, even when it comes six months after the query was sent and you are deeply involved in other work. And, when you get a call from a producer asking for a treatment, hanging up the phone might take dedication beyond what’s reasonable. But populating your calendar with deadlines that, upon analysis, would not pay off as well as finishing the Work in Progress, will, in most cases, delay the achievements you’ve planned and worked for.

Limit the deadlines in your life. Strive to make them all achievable and take steps to meet them even if life gets in the way. Make sure the projects you put deadlines to, especially those that intrude on your career plans, are worthy. Take care of your reputation for meeting deadlines that involve clients, collaborators, and publishers. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Decision Making for Writers 3 - Choose wisely

No one can guarantee that all the important decisions you make in your writing career will be the best. There is no such thing as perfect knowledge and luck always plays a part. In addition, what's best for you, even if you have thought things out well, isn't static. Changes in your life and the new possibilities that emerge as your skills and interests change add elements of volatility to any of your decisions.

Don't panic. There's some evidence that searching for "good enough" choices will lead you to better and more satisfying results than always trying to optimize. This is why being thoughtful about which criteria are the most essential to getting what you want (rather than all possible criteria) is among the most important factors in good decision-making.

A good place to start is considering your basic goals as a writer. Think about:
  • What kind of writing you're interested in (Screenplays? Novels? Short stories? Poetry? Nonfiction?),
  • What genre or genres you wish to master (Romance? Science fiction? Mystery?),
  • Why you want to write (To change the world? To express yourself? To make money? To attain fame? To entertain?), and
  • What you’re suited for.
It's good to begin a personal inventory. Where do you want to spend your time? (Hint: look to see what your heart tells you, where your passion lies.) You may want to assess your current skills and what education and practice might be needed to engage in different kinds of writing. Anything you can do to determine what opportunities are in front of you and where your talents lie can help you make better choices. (Just you don't let anyone tell you what you want to do is impossible.) In a general way, considering the investment you might need to make (time, money, social capital) is worthwhile.

So, for instance, Writer Smith might decide to write SF scripts, aiming at enough success to make a living and get a few fans. Or Writer Jones might instead have the goal of exposing people to the values of medieval Irish clans by self-publishing a series of romance novel that bring that era to life.

Once you have clear goals (understanding that it's not failure to change your mind or shift to Plan B), you have foundational information for sorting through options. Choose projects that fit your goals. Investigate markets and contests and helpers (such as beta readers, editors, and agents) that are aligned with steps toward achieving your version of success. Smith might then learn screenplay format, create a script about alien monks who look like monsters, and enter it into the Austin Film Festival’s annual contest. Jones might learn all there is to know about producing e-books, join Romance Writers of America for its courses and camaraderie, and gather fans and beta readers of short stories, novellas, and, novels.

Note – it's okay to experiment and take on tactical work (such as, paying gigs that are not part of your plans) on occasion. These may expand your skill base and put food on the table. Just be careful not to make too many choices or sacrifice too much of your career to nonstrategic work.

Some of the things to consider when choosing projects include whether you will regret not doing some work or whether you will not like yourself if you do. Can you handle the consequences of a particular choice? It's sometimes useful to dig into a question by taking a contrary point of view and explicitly articulating and challenging your assumptions. One recommendation is to generate not just options that fit your criteria, but a few that don't. Even though these are unlikely to be chosen, they can sometimes lead to out-of-the-box thinking.

One danger as you consider the possibilities are in front of you is giving people too much space in your head. Whatever choices you make are ones you'll need to live with and they won't. Don't be afraid to go against advice or to make decisions that are popular.

People, of course, are the only sources of input. As you consider what factors might lead to good choices, brainstorm on possible ways you can get more information and clarify the answers. All the sources won't be equal, so it might be good to explicitly mark the uncertainty and credibility of each source.

I've often found it useful to take a list of 10 or 20 things I want to know for each of a set of options, narrow that list down to 5 to 10, and then create a spreadsheet scoring the different options against these (after getting enough information on each).

You go into a decision process, remember that you don't have infinite time. For some decisions, the clock is ticking from the time you're aware of the opportunity. You can't worry too much about incomplete information. But for those decisions that can be made, you need to give yourself a deadline. No decision deserves an infinite investment in your time and energy. But, be aware, that big decisions with indefinite deadlines are booby-trapped by our brains. Humans have a tendency to overestimate the value of missing data. This leads to delay, frustration, too much work put into finding answers of less value, and self-doubt. Don't get caught this way.

Has this implies, once you've made an irreversible decision, it's good to move forward and not continue to evaluate and reconsider your choice. Instead, work at making the bests of the option you selected. If your decision is important and reversible, mark an appropriate date on your calendar to give it a fresh look. And don't waste time thinking about it until you get to that date.

Deadlines are tricky. They can be of enormous value, but they can also be distracting. I’ll examine their role in effective decision making next time.

In addition to looking at the previous posts in this series, you may want to look at some of the articles I referenced:

7 Questions You Should Ask Yourself When Faced With A Tough Decision In Life

Four Tricks to Help You Make Any Difficult Decision

Don’t Overthink It: 5 Tips for Daily Decision-Making
7 Steps to Making Better Decisions
6 Tips for Making Better Decisions

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Decision Making for Writers 2 - What could go wrong?

The decisions writers make shape their lives and their careers. They determine their opportunities and the impact of the work they do. But not all decisions are equally important, and one of the most common mistakes writers makes is obsessing over decisions that are reversible or have little consequence.

Determining reversibility should be easy. If I choose A, can I go back and choose B instead? If I can, the gravity of the decision is immediately reduced. I met someone who wrote a love story from the point of view of a gay best friend, and then rewrote the story from the female lover's point of view. There was a cost in time, but part of the investment came back in terms of a better understanding of the story and something special available online for fans of the published version. Reversible. No real problem.

Consequence is more difficult to determine. You don't always know exactly. And what one person considers trivial outcomes may be important to someone else. If you have specific consequences in mind, one question to ask yourself is, on a scale of one to ten, how much does it matter to you? I had an offer from a publisher for a novel I co-wrote. The publisher's other books had covers I thought were okay, but my collaborator hated them. Three for me was eight for her, so we never accepted the contract.

Of course, the best way to get a good overview of consequences is to write down your criteria before a decision is to be made. Let's try that.

Should I submit my novel to a traditional novel or independently publish it? Look at possible benefits or drawbacks of each.
  • Time investment - Traditional publishing brings in a crew of helpers (editors, designers, marketers), while most of the work (and all the decisions) fall on a writer who independently publishes.
  • Skill development - Independent publishers are pushed by circumstances to learn and understand dimensions of publishing that they might otherwise miss. Those who are traditionally published get an outside view on things from story development to word choice to fonts used for covers.
  • Exposure - Traditional publishers put books into markets and in front of critics independent publishers usually can't reach. But independent publishers can use their knowledge of audiences to direct placement and can time publication to their best advantage.
  • Passion - Traditional publishers can deliver on the dream of many writers for recognition, while independent writers get to tell exactly the stories they want to.
  • Money - Often, traditional publishers sell more books, but writers who independently publish get larger shares of the profits.
OK, your mileage may vary on these, but I hope you get the idea. It's only possible to evaluate the chances of each consequence and what these mean to you when you take a closer look. Ultimately, with something like this publishing decision, you can do your research and even may create spreadsheets and rankings that allow you to see the consequences in a glance.

Let's take on a more subtle decision. Should I write my romantic comedy as a novel or a feature film script?

First, look at a few considerations by asking questions:

  • How comfortable am I with each format?
  • What's my best guess on the marketability of one versus the other?
  • What are the time investments? Opportunity costs?
  • How does the money compare?
  • What opportunities might the work generate?
  • What might I learn that interest me? Enhances my skills?
  • Who might I work with (either specific people or people in certain roles)?
  • What research would I need to do? Will I need to invest money or social capital?
  • How passionate am I about the story?
  • Does the story represent work I want to do more of?

Out of these, criteria emerge less directly, and I might be able to guess how much each matters in terms of:
  • Time
  • Opportunity
  • Passion
  • Money
  • Experience
Note that this decision is a reversible. Both a novel and a script could be written.  Also, the decision could become a more informed decision by writing a few chapters and an outline for the novel or a few scenes and a treatment for the screenplay. Prototyping, especially if the time investment is limited, is a great way to reach good decisions.

Can you guess what might lead to bad decisions? Not having criteria. And, in particular,  the potential problem rise when you don't have criteria at a high level, like career aspirations. If you make a decision without knowing what you want, you can only get a good result if you are lucky.

Another problem is changing criteria. This happens a lot, especially when other people jump in to influence you. Once an editor sent me pages of text arguing against my criteria. She really wanted the manuscript, which was flattering. But ultimately, I didn't let her minimize what I determined were my priorities, and I held onto my own criteria. And I turned her down.

Other people, including other writers, will try to push their own criteria on you. I've seen traditionally published people claim their choice was the only reasonable one for everyone and I've seen independently published writers do the same. The only reasonable criteria for you are your criteria.

This is not to say that you shouldn't listen to other people. The ideas, experiences, and warnings of others can be invaluable. Talk to other writers (and agents and agents). Read advice. Check out sites like SFWA's Writers Beware http://www.sfwa.org/other-resources/for-authors/writer-beware/. As you do, look to your own values and use that to assess what you learn.

Research -- too much and too little -- can be problematic. Learning how to ask good questions, the ones that matter, is one of the best skills you can master. Don't make important decisions impulsively if you can avoid it, but watch your time investment. Get the answers you need, then stop and move on. However, the drive to be thorough is often tied more to fear than to being judicious. So don't get lost in your research, either. You'll never know everything and you'll never come up with everything that could go wrong.

Finally, a major wrong turn I've seen far too often is not accepting the answer. This usually happens when, in his/her heart of hearts, the writer has already decided and just wants to justify that decision. When the facts don't add up for the preferred choice, data is questioned, more information is gathered, people giving advice are judges as "not understanding," etc., etc. What follows is a miserable and harmful exercise in delay or self-deception. It's unhealthy. Better to make a decision and deal with the consequences than to create stress, abuse logic, and fray relationships in this kind of a game.

Last time, I looked at the value of a writer's decisions and questions that need answering. I'll continue this series next week with a start on a decision-making guide, complete with some good practices.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Decision Making for Writers 1 - Key choices

One of the deadly sins for writing is dithering. Over and over again, I’ve come across writers who struggle to choose what they will do during their limited writing time. Will I work on project A, B, or C? Which scene should I take on? Do I want to draft new pages? Or rewrite?

On and on it goes. Promiscuous writers, who need to create pages for every idea that comes to them, create long confusing list of opportunities. Others carried in every direction by contests, manuscript want lists, pitch events, and offers of collaboration.

Number 2 of Heinlein’s Rules for Writers is “Finish What You Start.” Dithering prevents this. No one became a better writer or got published by writing dozens (or hundreds) of unfinished stories.

But though I’ve been advising writers to stop dithering for years, I’ve never provided any guidance on the ultimate way to avoid the malady — making decisions. That’s the point of this series of blogs. I’ll begin here by noting some of the key choices writers face, along with the stakes involved.

Next week, I’ll review some of the problems that confound writers. I also hope to do a posting on decision-making methodology, and another on the best ways to reduce the number of decisions writers face. 

Note that, while wrestling with decisions is a classic way to procrastinate, I’m not going to get into the “head games” that get in the way. Fears, sloth, doubts, distractions, and lack of interest can all be root causes for avoiding writing, and indecisiveness can be a great way to cover these up. Even the best advice on making choices will not help in these cases. The need to do research or lack of time or some other reason why stories don’t get written will rise up immediately after the decisions have been made. The work still won’t get done.

So, to get thing started, here are some choices writers might make that could be both important and difficult:
If you have your own questions, please feel welcome to add them in comments.
  • What should I write? 
  • What about research?
  • What format should I focus on?
  • What genre should I choose?
  • What’s my next step in rewriting?
  • Am I finished rewriting?
  • Should I collaborate?
  • Should I enter contest X?
  • Should I get an agent?
  • Should I submit or self-publish?
  • Should I sign a contract and give away rights?
  • What should I charge?
  • What do I need to learn next?
These questions all have implications with regard to resources (like money), skill development, artistic achievement (and ambition), opportunities, social standing, access to other people and communities, experiences, self esteem, and career path. These represent the stakes, what’s at risk, with every choice.

Of course, for some people, the answers to these questions may be obvious or trivial or even irrelevant. Their meanings have to do with your needs what you value, where you are in your journey, and what your career goals are.

Teddy Roosevelt said, “In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.”

For decisions that need to be made right away, this is good guidance. Just decide and move on. But for many decisions, factors around the decision (e.g., its importance and whether it’s reversible) and the investment in decision making (time, money, research, social capital) come into play. These raise the value of taking a closer look at how decisions shouldn’t be made and how they should. More on this next time.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Writers' Mini-Productivity Clinic - Tips and concerns

I wrote this up for a class I'm teaching. It may be a good way for readers of this blog to review the essentials, so here it is for you.

Most of us would like to increase out output, but not at the expense of quality. That is, you don’t want to simply put more words on paper. You want to get more of your novel done for each hour of work.

Based on my experiences with hundreds of writers, the most valuable change you can make is to draft the full manuscript with your internal editor turned off. This does not mean engaging in automatic writing or moving to stream of consciousness. It means keeping your focus on telling the story without paying too much attention to making every word perfect the first time through or rewriting along the way. In other words, relax, have fun, and allow your creative self to shine through. Be tough and rigorous later, when you’re revising.

To help you do this, I’ll offer some tips and alert you to some concerns.

Warning 1 Be careful about trying to write faster if you are a “natural.” It is okay to experiment out of your comfort zone, but too much forcing is a mistake.

Warning 2 Don’t try to adopt all the tips at once.

Warning 3 Change is hard, and every change involves trade-offs. If your instincts say a change is not worth it, trust your instincts.

Warning 4 If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Samuel R. Delany, reportedly, never puts a word down until he knows it’s right, and never revises. There are people like this. Rarely. If you are one of them or if a tip or concern does not make sense for you, don’t force it.

This is not a complete set of tips. For me, Fast Writing addresses six steps (Overcoming Blocks, Knowing What to Write, Fast Plotting, Fast Drafting, Fast Rewriting and Fast Synopsis Writing), and each has many opportunities for speeding things up. The tips below are a selection that might be helpful.

The Ten Tips

1. Make a decision on what you will write the day before. Decide which project, which section and which of the six steps you will work on. It is okay to do something else, but do what you committed to do.

2. Measure your work. Count words or commit to minutes. Chart your work every day. Flannery O’Connor wrote 200 words a day exactly. I write 10,000 words a week. For years, I wrote 40 minutes per day. Write what’s right for you. Track it. Consider increasing your commitment once you have a month without missing your goals. Sometimes, doing something like a Weight Watchers weigh in helps people to keep their commitments.

3. Use technology judiciously. This may mean turning off Wi-Fi or learning to use Dragon Dictate (a favorite of mine). Experiment with what will make you more efficient without damaging your work.

4. Make your notes in full sentences. This one is from Ray Bradbury, and it has been a real timesaver. I no longer puzzle over random words like “galoshes.”

5. Write, don’t think. This one is from Isaac Asimov. In drafting (and sometimes plotting), charging forward without worrying about spelling or the exact word can keep fill the pages. When I write nonfiction, I often put the word “bagel” in when I don’t know a statistic or a name or another fact. After the draft is done, I then search for all the bagels and fix them.

6. Try dialogue only. A conversation (especially in romance) often can carry a scene. If you let the characters speak without worrying about what the setting or their faces look like, the pages can fill up quickly. Then you can go back and fill in the visuals later.

7. Master your world without stinting your writing. Often you can run out of things to say for the simple reason that you don’t know enough about your world and your people. A little research often can open things up for you. Just be careful not to have library time consume your writing time.

8. Don’t finish anything, but finish everything. For many people, it is twice as hard to start a scene or a chapter than it is to finish one. Leaving them unfinished at the end of your writing time gives you a perfect starting point.

9. Don’t leave your best stuff in the Green Room. Actors know what I’m talking about. Even Shakespeare can become stale. Lots of writers tell their stories so often that it feels like leftovers by the time they hit the keyboard. Share your story in written form.

10. Have documented processes. For each of the six steps, write down the process you use. Create forms, flow charts, or questions, if that helps. What you want is a definite plan of attack. Then you can avoid the excuse of not knowing (or having decided) what to do next.

Bonus tip: Relax, enjoy, make mistakes, have fun. As Damon Knight said, “It’s not a watercolor.”

The Concerns

There are some habits that (for most writers) cut into productivity. Some are easy to fix. Some are difficult. But if you have a bad habit and break it, the benefits in productivity can be enormous, compounded over all the years you write. Here are the main concerns I have seen writers work on to good effect:
  1. Looping - This is rewriting along the way. I’ve met dozens of writers who have been working on their first few chapters for years. Drafting and revising access different parts of the brain. It takes energy to switch back and forth, making writing a drudgery. Revising along the way wakes up the internal editor, who is happy to disparage the work and create doubts.
  2. Dithering - Some people allow themselves to decide which project to work on each day. And they often get wallowed in indecision. Or they allow themselves to make impromptu jumps to different scenes —but which ones? Or they have ad hoc revision processes, where they may shift around between macro fixes (like story logic) and micro fixes (like making verbs more active).  Setting up the need to make decisions during your writing time consumes energy and bring the work to a stop. Have a process that directs you to an ordered set of choices, and stick with it.
  3. Promiscuity - Yes, writers have roving eyes for ideas. And the cute new ones often cause a writer to abandon the Work in Progress (especially during the deadly slump that shows up half to three-quarters of the way through the drafting). Noting (and even working on) new ideas is fine — as long as the Work in Progress is being attended to regularly.
  4. Procrastination - Life gets in the way. Sometimes when it shouldn’t. Why is it that laundry needs doing or pencils need sharpening during writing sessions? Usually, because chores are much more appealing when the writing gets challenging. By all means, take a break from time to time. But remember what Judith Guest said. For every day you take off, it will take a day to get back into the rhythm of the work.
  5. Random walks - This is related to dithering, and you are vulnerable to not knowing what comes next if you haven’t created a process for your work. Rewriting (which is complex and multi-layered) is a major vulnerability for writers who haven’t documented out the steps that work for them. Taking on everything in a manuscript that needs fixing at once is inefficient and creates confusion.
  6. Getting “writerly” - I owe this one to Kristan Higgins, who noted that many writers convince themselves they are writing when they are surfing the Web (research), publicizing (especially by indulging in social media), and talking with other writers. All of this is fine in its place, but it is not writing. It’s what Kristan calls “writerly activities.” If you pretend these make you a writer, you are robbing time from the work of storytelling.

The simplest formula for success.

I have compassion for people who want to be writers who feel frustrated or as if their efforts have stalled. Here’s the most successful advice I’ve had for them.

Step 1. Commit to writing 15 minutes a day, 5 days a week. Put these sessions onto your calendar.

Step 2. Choose a work that will be your Work in Progress (WIP), and commit to working on it during your sessions until the manuscript is complete.

Step 3. Each day before a session, write one complete sentence on what the next day’s work will be. Something like, “Franklin will steal the diamond.” That’s the scene you’ll be writing.

Step 4. Set a timer at the beginning of your session and get right to work. Just write. Don’t research.

Don’t consult a thesaurus. Get words down. Move the story forward. (You’ll probably get a page or so drafted.)

With this process, you’ll develop good habits, grow as a writer, and have the equivalent of a manuscript drafted every year.

And you deserve it. The two hours you give yourself as a gift each week should belong to you. Some moms with kids in diapers have been able to do this for themselves. So can you.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Unexpected in Fiction 3 – Reader anticipation

Having looked at how surprise might be used in storytelling and the approaches writers can take to creating the unexpected, let's take a look at it from the reader's point of view.

Most readers don't want to be confused, but they don't want to be bored either. Familiar details and predictable sequences can build verisimilitude and help readers to orient themselves and feel at home in a story, but they are always hoping something strange will happen. And, once they've observed a pattern and been engaged enough to use it to predict what will happen next, they hope the writer will change things up.

The way the reader participates in surprise is through anticipation. Working out puzzles, looking for answers, and wanting to know what happens next require an investment on the part of the reader.

That depends upon five things:

First the reader must be engaged in the story. Titles, hooks, and genre tropes can all be used to draw a reader in.

Second, they need to be presented with what is normal.  H.G. Wells said, “As soon as the magic trick has been done the whole business of the fantasy writer is to keep everything else human and real. Touches of prosaic detail are imperative and a rigorous adherence to the hypothesis. Any extra fantasy outside the cardinal assumption immediately gives a touch of irresponsible silliness to the invention.” I think this has relevance to all types of fiction. If there are no limits and oddity and change are constant, nothing is unexpected.

Third, the reader must be kept immersed in the story. Language, empathetic characters, and questions all keep them involved and participating.

Fourth is trust. Readers will only invest enough to speculate on answers if they have confidence in the writer. They must believe that the writer is competence and will not cheat them with, say, a deus ex machina.

Fifth, based on the set up, something should be missing. The reader should feel an urge to complete an idea or formulate theories about how questions might be answered. And these can't be just any questions. They must be questions where readers believe the answers will matter, either because they will reveal something or because they will be entertaining or both.

Putting in apparent answers in fine.  As much as fairness is a part of anticipation, readers usually want to be misled. Red herrings and distractions that misdirect without being ham-handed are welcome.

One more thing to keep in mind: Engagement requires that the reader will not be repelled by the qualities or the content of the work (although it is possible to push the envelope for readers occasionally). For instance, some people will never watch black-and-white movies. Others have this or reactions against fiction, such as fantasy, that is not mimetic. This is fine. No writer can appeal to everyone. But knowing the audience has these limits and requirements can be a useful guide for a writer.

When answers are delivered, they must be satisfying. They must feel worthy of the investments the readers have made and they must be fair. That is, the answers must be better than what the reader hope for while staying within the boundaries of the information (clues) that have been presented.

So, consider this when you're writing: a surprise only works if readers are actively involved, gathering information, forming their own hypotheses, connecting logic chains, worrying about the fates of characters, and hoping for insights on matters of concern.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Unexpected in Fiction 2 - How to create surprises

Sometimes you surprise yourself. When you do this as a writer, it can provide big thrills for you and your readers. But, just as happiness is approached indirectly, there is no straight-line formula for self-surprise.


To be surprised, you need to be open to being surprised. This usually means taking the stress off and allowing yourself to have some fun. John Cleese recommends being patient, giving your brain the time to be creative.

Knowledge is a critical component as well. The more you give slack to your curiosity, gathering "useless" information and allowing yourself to dig deeply into areas that fascinate you, the more you'll have at hand to connect to and ways that make sense but don't conform to conventional wisdom.

Another form of knowledge is developing a better understanding of surprise itself. In the last entry, I provided some of the literary uses of surprise, but you can build beyond those. The first step is noticing when you and others get surprised and then analyzing the process. Was the surprise startling? How novel was the information? What was supposed to happen? Was what did happen justified? If you become sensitive to times when you experience surprise and begin to note and analyze these, you'll take steps toward being able to do the same tricks or improve on them. (Sometimes, a disappointment or a failed attempt to surprise can be more instructive than a successful execution.)


Not all surprises are good. In fact, the original meaning of the word was more connected with an ambush than a thrill. To the extent, we protect ourselves from surprising situations. We make plans. As writers, we plot, outline, analyze, and describe. With all the best intentions, we often make surprises that might enhance the manuscripts unlikely.

This is one reason why I'm a big believer in fast drafting a manuscript. Accepting what your brain creates and ignoring the internal editor often opens up possibilities that societal strictures, "rules," and "good taste" preclude. Write fast enough and anything can happen.

This may seem intemperate to you. If so, my next suggestion maybe even more upsetting. Cultivate opportunities to paint yourself into corners. Give your viewpoint characters impossible choices. Select topics and perspectives that are way out of your comfort zone. (Okay, this might not sound like fun, but you can learn to like it.)

You can also add some pressure by setting a timer and forcing yourself to write into the unknown and reach some sort of an endpoint before the timer goes off.

You can also force yourself to explore options. This can be as simple as making a list of 10 to 20 possibilities (and choosing one from the second half of the list) or it can be as challenging as writing several versions of a scene.


Most mystery writers know who the culprit is and how they did it before they begin the story (or so I'm told). So, though I have faith that surprising yourself is this your respect to surprising readers, it is
possible to work from and ending to create the delights of the unexpected. There are several aspects to pulling this off, including charming and distracting the reader so that evidence isn't properly noticed. It's also good to lead people astray with alternate expectations and to introduce new ideas and information in ways that guarantee the reader's understanding. Ultimately, the payoff must be worthwhile and clear.

The value of the conclusion must be high enough to justify the reader's investment in time and engagement. It must be worth the price. Usually, this means something new must be learned, whether it be about who characters really are or how information connects (including meaningful juxtapositions). The payoff isn't much of a payoff if it's expected or only slightly different from what's expected or disappointing compared to what the reader hoped for.

Needless to say, all surprises – not just solutions to murders — must be fair. Except in cases where the author only intends to shock the reader, information must be provided that would have allowed readers to predict the the surprising elements. (One TV writer said the surprise was justified if half his audience could have guessed it. But, of course, you hope none of them actually do.)

A few more notes:

Other than self protection, the main thing working against surprise for authors is politeness. While, as individuals, we may not want to be rude, cultivating a level of social chaos within a story and being actively cruel to our characters can create situations that take readers away from the familiar, enhancing their enjoyment of the stories. It's also important to develop a tolerance for some inconsistency and to put up with contradictions within characters. Logic and much of what we learn in schools push us toward making sense.

As storytellers, we need more latitude. It's difficult to name a major character in fiction who isn't riddled with contradictions. And one prominent scriptwriter told me that every movie has at least one important logical flaw. So, you have my permission to step away from order and dip your toe into chaos from time to time – provided it makes the story better.